DEAR OLD TRAINER: I was glad to see your advice it is natural for a dog to growl at the vet when being examined. Maggie, my 2-year old Heeler/English Sheep dog mix, is a loving dog, but she refuses to make up with anyone but me. She is the smartest and best trained dog I have ever had, but she growls and raises her hackles when visitors try to pet her. Should I try to train her to be friendly to people?
DEAR MARK: I don’t recommend it and I don’t do it with my dogs.
Heelers and English Sheep dogs are both smart breeds and have complex reasons for what they do. It is the theme explored in the film “A Beautiful Mind.” The more powerful the mind, the more powerful the impulses it will produce.
I don’t see any reason to be concerned about Maggie. Some dogs like everyone they meet, some have no room in their life except for the one person they love. Sounds to me like Maggie knows what she wants.
I have the same situation with Joker, my youngest border collie. He loves on me the entire day, loves all other dogs, and is the happiest dog I have. Yet he growls at anyone who tries to touch him.
He doesn’t dislike people. He likes to get up close to anyone we meet and study them, he just doesn’t want them touching him and will growl if they try.
I decided it was not wise to try and train him to like people. I left it up to him. He is smart enough to make that decision and if he wants to be a grouch, that’s fine with me. I understand. Sometimes I don’t want to be bothered, either.
My suggestion is you do the same with Maggie. She is a loving, well-trained dog. She has reasons for her behavior, just as Joker does. Part of it is that some dogs don’t want affection from strangers, part is that herd dogs feel it is their right to run the world the way they want it run, part is natural self-protection reflex.
Growling is the natural way a dog tells the world to leave her alone and, as you point out, she does not bother anyone unless they try to invade her sense of privacy. When a dog growls, it is a tactic to avoid having to use force.
Your job is to show Maggie she has the right to growl if strangers approach her, but as long as they leave her alone she leaves them alone. Maggie is smart enough to understand the concept if you work with her. Work every day on sit, stay, come, hold and all the other commands Maggie knows.
When visitors arrive, remind Maggie right away to look at you. The minute she focuses on anyone else say, “no, Maggie, look at me.” Warn the other people not to attempt to touch her.
If she starts to bristle, interrupt her focus by calling her to you and making her sit. Give her a lecture and remind her she can growl at people or ignore them, but she cannot boss them around.
A trainer for more than 30 years, Jack Haskins has rescued, trained and placed more than 2,500 dogs. Send questions to email@example.com.